Sparks and molten metal flew in all directions as Raven threw Elemacil up to catch the giant's mace, letting the strike slide away and sidestepping another kick before she was sent through the air yet again. She could feel new strength flowing through her arms as Yajiit's flames roared and leaped from her forearms and sword, a newfound confidence that she could confront this giant human and defeat him in open battle. With a heartfelt prayer to Dokorath she lashed out and laid a seared gash through the flesh of the giant's thigh.
Hough scrambled hastily from one pillar to another, fearfully keeping as far from the giant as the battling duo would allow and watching also for other dangers. For the most part the smaller combatants had been eliminated from the chapel, much to his relief, leaving only the two giants. Or, rather, three if one counted the fallen giant that had never attacked anybody. Hough had found it somewhat confusing that, upon entering the chapel through the strange shimmer in the air, the giant had wandered to one side and simply fallen face down over a heap of shattered pews.
It was not the scintillating display that Hough had often marveled at during the few festivals of arms he had ever seen. Where those gaily clad duelists had traded rapid-fire blows with gleaming steel, the wolf and the giant traded mighty blows which were slow in coming but terrible to witness. With each fearsome swing of his mace the giant forced Raven back another pace, only to regain it as she blocked the blow with her seemingly miniscule sword against the huge mace, then countering with a quick lunge or thrust of her blade and sending the giant back in haste.
Thus the two battled back and forth across the altar dais, knocking over the altar itself, smashing the lectern into scattered pieces, and destroying every candle stand that had remained. With each surge and counter Hough scrambled to keep himself more or less abreast of Raven, who prevented any move by the giant to make any attacks toward him. The balance between the two was even, neither more powerful than the other, neither able to gain the upper hand. The giant had reach, strength, and stamina. Raven had a sword blessed by gods, a strength Hough had never imagined, and the indomitable will to not back away from such a physically imposing opponent. Where Hough had always been intimidated by Raven herself whenever he came across her, the wolf being almost twice again as tall as he, broad of shoulder in wolf fashion, and having the most fearsome visage he could imagine, the giant made her seem as inconsequential as Hough felt when compared to her.
Something Hough could not identify came from the far side of the chapel and slammed solidly into the giant's temple, knocking the tall humanoid literally one step sideways. Raven was quick to take advantage of the stunned giant, leaping in and carving a charred swath across the giant's hip. The giant yelled something unintelligible and shook his head to clear it, stepping back and attempting to hammer the wolf into the floor with his mace. Due to the continued attacks with Raven's flaming sword the mace had become so weakened that it snapped upon striking the floor, the scarred head bouncing away, barely missing Raven as she half dodged, stumbled over some debris, and ended up completing her escape with an impromptu roll. Coming to her feet she charged at the giant with a ululating howl which sent the short hairs on the back of Hough's neck up with instinctive fear.
The giant spun around and reached out with both arms in an attempt to catch the charging wolf priestess, managing to bat her sword away with one hand at the cost of a searing wound upon his palm, and catching her with his other arm a glancing blow. She evaded being grabbed, but the force of the blow sent her staggering past, off balance as the giant spun around for another attack. A wet smack, like the sound of a heavy slab of meat falling from a great height, sent the giant reeling back as a fountain of blood erupted from his left eye. With a great, agonized roar the giant staggered away, clasping his ruined eye with one hand as he tried to fend Raven off with the broken haft of his mace.
Despite himself Hough felt triumphant at the giant's agony and loss, clenching his fists in front of his chest as his jaw tightened, a snarl of fierceness twisting his youthful face. He watched as the giant retreated, turning and running away from Raven, who did not pursue. She looked about her in a strange sort of daze as her muzzle hung open, tongue hanging from between her long canines as she gasped for breath. Her shoulders slumped as she spied Hough, then sank to one knee in complete exhaustion. Hough almost ran to her, coming to a halt as he saw another figure mount the dais with a weapon in hand.
"Father Hough!" the lad yelled, the sling in his hand heavy with another impromptu missile as he watched the giant recover the discarded mace of one of his fallen comrades. "Father Hough! Where are you?"
"I am here, Ramad." Hough called from behind a pillar across from the young acolyte, "I am well, for the nonce. See to sister Raven, the fight has wearied her terribly." He said as he emerged from cover after a wary glance toward the growing horde of lutins appearing, quite miraculously, from the thin air in the center of the chapel. He crossed quickly to the wolf's side, laying one hand upon her shoulder, his other under her elbow as Ramad joined them, draping his loaded sling over his shoulder. Hough was surprised to see that the young priest-in-training was using, of all things, a votive candle for ammunition.
"Forgive me father." Ramad said in a quiet hiss as he grasped Raven's off elbow, the wolf looking at him curiously for a moment before clasping the taller human's shoulder and using it to lever herself to her paws. Her fire was gone, drained away as swiftly as Dokorath's strength, as her blessing spent itself in keeping the giant at bay. "I've shed blood in the House of Eli."
Hough shot the young man a totally incredulous look as Rickkter and the unidentified marten mowed lutins down like so much summer wheat. He grunted as he leaned under Raven's arm and helped guide her toward the back of the dais toward some relative calm, "You're not the first, my son, nor the last. Be at ease, I am most sure Eli will forgive your heroism." He offered dryly as they helped Raven sit down upon a toppled urn. With a growl she slumped, standing Elemacil against the end of the urn blade down. It slowly slid sideways and would have crashed to the floor had Ramad not grasped the hilt quickly and righted it, leaning the gods-touched weapon against a nearby wall. Looking at Hough, then at the most powerful member of the opposing faith in his care, Ramad stood and walked back across the dais, standing near the shattered lectern, and took his sling from his shoulder. Finding a target, he prepared to enter the fray once more.
quot;Foul king Yanlem last looked out, o'er the Host of A'ven. Where the lords lay all about, stiff and cold and beaten." Dream intoned with a haughty, rolling tenor as he spun swiftly from Rickkter's right hand to his left, circling behind the raccoon in an intricate sword dance that made the long tassels on the hilts of his swords seem to enwrap around him. The raccoon fought a much less intricate battle, though no less swift and deadly.
The first three lutins to come at them barely had a chance to register that the two Keepers had one more sword than the three of them did. Dream's paired wakizashis carved the sword from the grasp of one lutin less than a heartbeat before he carved the same lutin's head from his shoulders. Rickkter's longer katana literally shattered the blade of the first lutin to brace him, a back-hand slash of his own wakizashi opening the shorter, far uglier warrior's throat. Even as the dancing dandy turned his attention to the third warrior Rick simply strode inside the lutin's arc of attack and buried both swords in his chest.
"Dimly stood the moon that night, though the stars were shining. Then a standard stood on high, as the sun was dawning." The marten continued his ballad even as he dealt death. Though his voice was light and melodious, his face was writ with a hard countenance, only the pull at the corners of his muzzle revealing that he was enjoying his deadly dance. Rick 's dance was less art and more menace, moving to intercept a quartet of lutins as they crowded into the chapel in a yelling surge. Four more nearly marched on top of them as they came up short to face their ring-tailed foe. Gliding smoothly up to Rickkter's off side, the marten flashed him a brief nod as he stood his ground.
Rickkter found his bardic battle mode terribly insulting, making light of a battle which was being waged in one direction and which could not be taken back against the invading commander. As he lashed out at two lutins at once the marten darted around, still singing, his feet still in time with the step of his dance, and blocked the riposting attacks of no less than three other lutins.
"Hark, commander, and come to me, if you see it tell me. Yonder pennant bears what mark? Whom and whence their coming?" he sang, his voice punctuated by the sharp grunts and hisses of battle yet never loosing a note. As the marten wove and darted, seeming to float from one contact to another without breaking stride or voice, Rickkter had to admit to a certain degree of admiration. He had seen many other warriors use the mantis mode of defense in the past, where both swords are laid back along the forearm rather than extended outward, but only three times had he ever seen the mantis turned into an attack form. The first time he had encountered it had been from one of his instructors, who was very proficient in the particulars of the style but disdaining its lack of reach and striking power. The second was an enemy and Rick had spared his style barely a moments regard before cutting him down with a fusillade of magical arrows.
"Sire it is the Boar, the herald mark of Lauen. From Unken they come hence, at the beck of A'ven." Sparks flew as lutin steel met Keeper steel, the two furred defenders continuing to press their attack forward. Rickkter was the sword, Dream the shield, one pressing his attack while the other provided a lightning swift defense and the occasional attack that was laid upon its target so swiftly it could barely be seen. Despite his annoyance, Rick found himself falling into the rhythm of the ancient ballad, a story he had heard before, but not with the rhythm and tempo that the marten was using. Strangely, as he bent to the song, he found his arms reflecting his changing stance, flowing more smoothly, much more swiftly. Swords shattered and shields collapsed before him and he advanced another pace.
At the far end of the chapel the doors burst open and a horde charged in, with Duke Thomas at their van, his huge sword held aloft and bared for destruction.
"Bring my blade and bring my shield, bring me all my armor. You and I shall go hence, to meet the Host of A'ven." Dream belted out, dancing on the soles of his paws, his tail lashing in counter to every dodge and weave, fur flying as a lutin sword cut across his stomach, but never slowing. Like a mantis striking prey, his arms came back and up, the tips of his swords flashing up and pointing directly at the lutin for a fraction of a second before darting forward and burying themselves in each of the lutin's eye sockets. The marten raised one foot and thrust it into the lutin 's gut, shoving him back with a snarl as Rick turned to face a more dangerous foe, a one-eyed giant moving to reinforce the lutins.
"Lord and vassal they did stand, against the greater army. Through the dawn into the dusk, they battled unrelenting." Retrieving his swords while splitting the dead lutin's skull, Dream lashed through the concentrated attacks of three others. Seeing the dangerous raccoon turning his attention to a greater foe, they thought that the marten would be safer pickings if they challenged him in mass. A regrettable miscalculation on their part, for the marten leaped up, spun and threw out his arms, his swords extending his reach considerably. One lutin failed to parry, receiving a slash across one arm that sent him reeling. Two others managed to block and dodge away, but one was suddenly sliced in twain by the Duke's massive war sword. The marten bowed regally and fairly leaped after the one with the sliced arm and cutting him down in a flurry of blinding slashes and stabs.
"As the moon again did rise, o'er the fields of battle. Two that stood there was but one, great and dark and evil." Darting past the Duke as the lutins were mobbed, the marten joined the raccoon and two other keepers, a woman and a boar, in facing off against the one-eyed giant that was swinging his mace desperately in broad sweeps to keep them at bay. Once more at Rick's right, the two shared a brief, conspiratory glance and twinned nods of accord, and both leapt under the next mighty swing. "Hear my words, good young men, for your ears are wan'dring. Foul king Yanlem last stood ground, against the Host of A'ven. Mark the ground on which he fell, ere the new day dawning. For whence that ground once more is green, Yanlem will come calling."
With the last chords of his song both Rick and the marten at his back came to their paws behind the giant who only knew he was about to die. Rick turned one direction, the marten the other, and both cut a mighty hamstring cleanly with their swords. Parting as the giant fell, they turned as the horde coming into the chapel swarmed upon the fallen giant, their weapons rising and falling in a swift rain of deadly blades.
The wailing of the giant died away swiftly as a dozen swords sliced and a dozen spears stabbed at his body, plunging the chapel into relative silence. Only the heavy, labored breathing of the combatants and the sound of shifting armor cut the heavy, wordless moment as everyone looked around for one more enemy. Rickkter glanced toward the dais, relieved to see Hough standing beside Raven, who sat slumped upon an urn looking exhausted, her great sword propped against the wall beside her. Sprawled in a heap on the floor some distance away was the cause of the whole affair, one mink whose nickname was, strangely enough, Joy.
When Rickkter laid eyes upon her she was unmoving, barely even breathing, and the next moment she was suddenly sitting up, looking wildly about for a heartbeat before clutching her head and letting out a spine chilling animal shriek that sent everyone in the chapel into an instant defensive stance expecting another attack. Rickkter blinked at the sudden transformation as his own swords darted up, then threw a swift look toward the wolf seated next to the follower priest, Hough.
"Lothanasa Raven, you must destroy the sword, now!" Rick bellowed as he strode toward Llyn, who had fallen back to the floor and was writhing about in apparent agony. Raven jerked her head up when she was addressed, her ears springing forward as she snarled at the sound. "The sword, Raven, there!" Rick pointed, "Muri has cut the link its creator has on the mink for a moment! You must destroy the sword now, while it is without a master!"
Grunting, Raven lurched to her lupine feet and snatched Emelacil from the wall. Staggering, she sought balance as she across the altar dais in the direction Rick pointed. She sprang from dais to chapel floor in a single stride, clearing the four broad steps from one to the other, as a blue nimbus of flame crackled and danced along the blade of her sword. Rick reached the mink shortly before Raven reached the sword, raising back his arm to strike the mink unconscious once more, simply for the surety of keeping the enemy mage from using her again.
"Muri!?" she called, looking up at the raccoon approaching, "Is Muri okay?" she cried out, struggling up onto her hands and knees, shaking her head, then clutching her temples and groveling in pain, "Where is Muriiii?" she wailed.
Reaching the cursed sword, Raven wasted not a moment in raising Emelacil high and bringing it down upon the blade just before the crossbar with a single mighty chop. Slightly elevated by a stone under the hilt, the sword bowed, then shattered with a tortured shriek of metal. Blackened shards scattered in all directions, slicing the wolf's robes, burying themselves in wood and the flesh of defenders standing too close, and caroming from every wall. Once more Llyn fell flat, unconscious, Rick's sword stayed in its motion to strike her.
The portal collapsed a heartbeat later with a sighing thump like a heavy door being drawn closed, sending a short gust through the chamber, silence falling in its wake.
Everyone looked around wordlessly for several moments, surveying the destruction and carnage around them. Those involved with the heat of the battle leaned on their weapons, trying to regain their breath, their postures haggard and weak. Just as the gathering was beginning to feel secure and their guard was coming down, a movement amongst the scattered pews brought weapons and defenses up with swift shrieks of steel from scabbards. Three giants had come through the portal, two of which lay motionless in slowly spreading pools of blood. The third, never having raised a weapon since his arrival, had never faced any of the fight, playing dead in a pile of ruin.
Raising one hand slightly, he brought it to his face in a gesture of surrender, "Spare Bruug!" he exclaimed hastily, cringing from the nearest weapons brought to bear, "Bruug no fight! Bruug work, Bruug no fight." He continued, slowly sitting up to gaze at the crowd swiftly circling around him. Staring hard at the giant for several seconds, Thomas frowned.
"Very well then. Clean this mess up." He ordered with a wave of his arm at the chamber, "Lieutenant, you and your men keep watch." He continued as he strode toward the door, "Sergeant, bring the wounded." Reaching the door, he stopped and turned, "And someone tell me what caused this whole mess? Who created that magic doorway?"
quot;Heren, could you finish cleaning up here? Thank you." Healer Coe asked, rather than ordered, his assistant as he stepped away from the bed. The young male thief had not moved since his companion, lying on a nearby table, had brought him in. Such was the degree of his somnolence that the raccoon healer had not needed any anesthetic while he cleaned, purged, and stitched the wound in his shoulder. Another stabbing victim, yet another breathing corpse, the fifth one in two weeks without any positive signs of change in any of them. They woke, ate, slept, walked around the quarantine chamber aimlessly, and defecated without any degree of consciousness.
One of his assistance had jokingly called them zombies, a label which Coe found it hard to disagree with. He just hoped that someone found out who stole their minds soon before anyone else found out what was happening. Thomas himself had come by after the third victim and ordered him to keep the situation quiet, but Coe had come to that choice after Raven explained what she had discovered with the very first victim.
Turning away, he used a clean towel to wipe the blood from the thin leather gloves on his hands. Having fur made even the simplest surgeries somewhat problematic as just about everything stuck in his fur. It had taken almost two years for him to find a suitable covering, supplied by of all creatures a dragon. Shedding was normal, and the skin they sloughed off was thin, supple, easily worked, and lasted quite a long time when properly cared for. Heren stepped into his vacated position as he walked from the room, carefully stripping the gloves from his paws.
In the process of removing the second glove he heard a startled cry, then another, followed by what seemed like a riot of panicked yelps coming from the direction of the quarantine room. From behind him he heard Heren's startled squawk and another startled yell, the sudden cacophony bringing him up short. He threw a glance back over his shoulder to see their newest patient sitting up on the infirmary table clutching Heren's wing-arm with one hand, the other at his injured shoulder.
"Calm lad, be calm!" Coe barked, the animalistic churr rasping in his throat as he returned to the infirmary room at a brisk trot, "You were injured. Your companion brought you in here unconscious. You're in the infirmary at Metamor, you are safe." He continued as he reached the bed. The age-regressed man threw him a wild glance, his breathing swift and shallow, but did release Heren's feathered arm. She retreated hastily, rubbing her bruised limb, then ran from the room.
"The quarantine, Healer. If he's awake." she did not finish the statement as she slipped past the raccoon and left the room.
"What happened?" the human asked, his face paling as the pain of his injuries began to win through the surge of his adrenaline. He sank back onto the elbow of his good arm with a wince, his eyes going wide as he noticed the wolf sprawled indelicately on a nearby table. Coe crossed over to a cabinet on a nearby wall and scrounged amongst the vials and unguents.
"You were injured, but not badly. I stitched your wounds until one of the healers could come and complete the mending with their magic. Your companion was unsettled by the sight of your injuries and passed out while I was working." The raccoon explained as he mixed several ingredients into a small pot of hot water. Carrying it over to the young human he offered it, "This will ease the pain and let you rest, but it will not make you sleep unless you choose to. There are several other matters I must attend to, so I will leave you to your own devices. Please don't leave for the time being."
Turning his back on the human he strode from the treatment room and walked briskly down the passageway toward the quarantine room where several other caregivers were already gathering. No one had yet opened the door, waiting for Coe or one of his aides do arrive. Since it was his duty period he was the only one present with a key.
As he reached the door he found the four occupants up and very active, far more active than they had been since arriving. The oldest, an elderly gender-switched male, was standing on the opposite side of the door speaking to one of the assistants with relative calm. The three age-regressed males in the room with him were somewhat less collected, though managing not to run around screaming.
"Healer, this is master artist Kan, the third of them to be brought in." Lothes explained, the bear stepping back as the raccoon approached. Being large and strong enough to keep the 'zombies' as he had called them under control, he possessed a gentle touch that suited the situation ideally. "He was the last to wake, but the first to get his wits about him."
"Give us old ladies some credit." The elder man quipped, his arms crossed over his bare chest as he watched them through the window in the door. One of the reasons he had chosen to speak was the fact that he was the only one tall enough to look through the window. Coe quickly unlocked the door and pushed it open.
"Forgive us for the containment, master Kan, but there were circumstances that required it." The healer explained. He stepped into the room, Lothes taking up a position at the door. The age-regressed victims turned their attention to him, one seated on his bed, the other coming up to stand beside Kan. The third was muttering from behind a hastily erected curtain about having awakened to find that he'd soiled himself.
"Circumstances?" the young man at Kan's side snorted, waving his splinted arm and his hand buried in bandages, "What be you yamming on, furball?" he snapped, "All be saying same, so on that accord we agree. Attacked we were by some freakish animal get wit orange eyes." He threw up his good hand, sparks flashing from his fingertips, "Sayin some spout about forgivness whilst she be tryin to skewer us!"
"'Forgive me, Father.'" Quoted the lad sitting on his bed looking exhausted. It was little doubt why he looked so haggard, having been the first to be brought in without a mind. "How could I be forgiving the witch and not knowing she was about to murder me?"
"Not murder, young sir. By some strange magic the perpetrator of this attack merely intended to injure you." Coe explained as he moved closer and knelt before the age-regressed keeper with the accent of a native of the furthest southern Sathmore baronies, "We have managed to repair much of the harm done, except to young Tym here, who received quite grievous harm when he was struck. Your hand will heal, but it will take a bit of time. The damage of the sword will leave you with some scarring, but not limit your mobility too much."
Frowning, Tym looked at his hand, "What of me fingers?" he asked with quiet concern.
"They'll be fine, your magic should be unaffected." Coe explained as he stood, "As it was, the unknown attacker stole your minds, leaving you in a state of wakeful emptiness since the moment of the attack."
"She wot?" Tym asked, blinking in surprise. Kan muttered something in a foreign dialect as he crossed himself.
"Stole your minds, albeit temporarily. It seems that whatever purpose that was for has either been fulfilled, or broken."
"When?" the one behind the curtain called, his voice quavering, "What is the day?"
"The eighth of October, the seventh year of the seventh century, by the calendar of Cristos." Lothes offered from the door with a slow, deep basso rumble.
"Two weeks?" the lad on the bed gasped, his jaw falling open, "I' ve been. trapped? Trapped for two weeks? Where?"
"We do not know, master Benthras. I have been told that your shop is being overseen in your absence, however." Lothes replied. Since the arrival of the first victim the bear's sole responsibility had been to maintain them. Coe had not known that he had also looked into the operations of their day-to-day lives in their unfortunate absences. The bear entered the room, lumbering with practiced ease among the beds to the curtained corner. Bear and human held a muted discussion as the others looked once again to Coe.
"Your situation is known to the Duke, and I will appraise him of your recovery forthwith. Until we have figured out just what has happened I would like you to stay in the keep. I am sure that rooms will be made available for your comfort. Lothes, please see to their comfort while I report to the Duke."
"Aye, healer. Godspeed."
Duke Thomas Hassan IV, lord of all the lands within the demesne of Metamor, felt utterly out of the loop as he sat in the comfortable embrace of his council chair and pondered the words given to him by those who witnessed the battle first hand. He leaned back into the depths of the seat, rubbing his long equine chin thoughtfully as he stewed over the information.
"So what you are telling me is that this whole mess was caused by the sword, not the mink who carried it?"
"Llyn, milord, and no." Muri hazarded before Rick could speak up again, leaning forward earnestly in his seat, eager to place as much emphasis on the manipulation of the weapon than on her responsibility with it. The Duke raised a brow at him as Rick cast him a withering glance that he never saw. "The sword itself was manipulating her, but I don't believe she had any conscious knowledge of it."
"How could she not?" Commander of the Watch Eindah retorted from his position to the Duke's left, "She spoke to every victim, got out and back into the Keep each time without being detected. That takes skill and knowledge of the layout and patterns of patrol."
"Commander, I believe the answers to those questions should be investigated, but not revealed until a trial is arranged." The Duke cautioned, "Until she recovers her wits we'll keep her secure where she is. I will discuss the matter with Malisa and Thalberg in the morning concerning the situation. For now, I suggest that we not discuss this with anyone not involved."
"And what do we tell Hough's followers?" Raven asked quietly before Hough, seated next to her, could speak up.
"Just what happened. A pawn of Nasoj managed to infiltrate the Keep and place an anchor spell in the Chapel. As for the soul stealer and the mink, we should say nothing." Rick advised in a level voice, his fingers steepled before his muzzle. Pacing at the rear of the room by the door, Misha nodded in agreement.
"That will cause a good deal of concern and alarm among his followers." The fox said simply, "How long will we need to leave the Chapel in ruins for this investigation?"
"I should think not long at all." Raven spoke up, "We have the remains of the sword." The indicated evidence scattered across the council table before them, "The mink, and all of the witnesses to that event."
"And Coe has all of the victims, who are now awake and in full possession of their wits." Thomas finished. "I already gave instructions that it be cleaned, so I see no need, other than perhaps for Rick and his pupil investigating the last vestiges of the magic used, to prevent Kyia from making whatever repairs she can."
"All traces of the portal vanished when the sword was shattered." Rick pointed out flatly, staring at the shards of the sword.
"And the sword has gone quiescent as well, it's magic is either gone," Muri ventured as he pushed a sliver with the tip of one finger-claw, "Or hidden itself." Rick shot him a curious glance, one brow raised, but said nothing.
With a tired sigh the Duke pushed back his chair and stood, "Very well. Until we have had enough time to determine our best choice as to a trial let us rest and clean up. Keep me appraised." He said, waving one hand in a gesture of dismissal. With various gestures of respect the assembled keepers rose and made their exits.
Eindah stepped forward and began collecting the pieces of the sword as Muri watched, preparing to sweep them into a leather sack. "Commander, please wrap the pieces before dumping them in that bag if you would."
With a grunt the slender human looked at the skunk, "Lad?" he asked, his head cocked curiously as his hand paused in mid-motion. Muri stood slowly as Rick walked out a pace ahead of Misha. Talking quietly to each other, Raven and Hough followed them out, leaving only the skunk and the human watch commander in the council room.
"If there is still magic in the blade it might try to piece itself back together." Muri explained as he picked up a shard and looked at it curiously. Eindah's brows rose in surprise as he looked at the pile he had already scraped together. With a sweep of his hand he scattered them across the table again.
"Good point. I'll see to that. You get yourself some sleep, son, you look hag ridden." The man said as he set the leather bag on the table, watching the skunk, "I understand that the accused was your lover."
"Is." Muri replied, his voice heavy as he turned and walked slowly from the room, leaving the commander behind.
"You believe she's responsible for the attacks?" Misha asked as he paced down the hallway at Rick's right.
"Quite." The raccoon replied with a slow nod, "It is the degree of her conscious participation that is the question."
"You think she was in control of her faculties, despite what that skunk says?"
"Murikeer. I believe she had some control. Enough to select her targets, and how she attacked them."
Misha nodded slowly, his whiskers angling forward as he pursed his vulpine lips in thought for a half dozen strides. Their shadows grew, shrank, and switched places as they passed torches in the corridor. "She didn't kill anyone."
"Don't be so sure that was her will. Some blades cannot hold a soul if the body is deceased, the pull of what afterlife it is destined for is just too powerful."
"And you believe she is guilty of the attacks, of her own free will?" Misha asked, looking sidelong at the raccoon curiously, frowning at the masked mage's nod. "And what would you do? Hang her? Burn her at the stake to be sure she was not still possessed by the sword's taint?"
Rick stopped abruptly, his long coat muttering as it swirled around his legs, "And what would you propose? That she go free, no consequences?" he chuffed, crossing his arms over his chest, "She stole the souls of five people, children at that even if they were age regressed." He turned and resumed walking before the fox could reply. "That she didn't kill them, which would have covered up her crimes, shows that she had some degree of control. Further, she did not try to get help when she found herself in situations she might not have been able to explain shows a degree of compliance with the what was going on. You saw the aftermath in the cathedral, Misha. She could have let that out upon the entire keep."
Misha nodded slowly as he matched the raccoon's brisk pace, "Can we really be sure what went on in her head when this was going on? We don't even know how much that blade mucked with her head, or even that her perceptions were anything we'd recognize." He sighed quietly and shook his head, "We would need to get inside her mind to find that out."
Rick nodded, frowning slightly at that idea, "Which is why I'm not advocating treason. Those five she did not want to kill and did not; Muri, Dream, Hough she did not want to kill and fought the blade tremendously. Myself, on the other paw, she would have gladly skewered to prevent my tampering with the portal spell."
The fox barked a laugh, the sharp sound echoing down the hallway as he gave the raccoon a companionable slap on the back, "I know a lot of people who would like to skewer you."
Rolling his eyes, Rickkter snorted, his whiskers twitching, "That doesn't change the question of control. Whom, or what, was controlling the situation."
Misha nodded, frowning, his whiskers drooping, "That's what it all boils down to. Was she in control or was she not."
"I doubt the mage controlling her would cry out, 'Muri, help me, Muri'." Rick mused as they turned a corner into a darker passageway. Here Kyia was leading them was a mystery, for he would have expected to reach his chambers, or Misha's, by now.
"Shows she controlled her mouth if not her hands."
"If she did not control her hands, how come Hough is not dead?" the raccoon countered.
"Her control was only partial? She was fighting the weapon, after all."
"And her feet? Muri already said she backed away rather than cleave his head. The coercion from the spell was a knife at her back, yes, that I will grant. But a knife she did nothing to avoid."
Misha nodded slowly, lacing his fingers at the small of his back, his tail swaying behind him as he pondered both sides of the situation. "And what would you have done?"
Rick chuffed, growling, "Besides fight tooth and nail? I don't like to be controlled, by anyone, magically, politically, or socially. I don't like to be manipulated. Were I reduced to a mundane state like hers, and experienced incidences, or even visions, in which the sword stolen from a mage was somehow controlling me, I would definitely take it up with one of my close, personal friends who might know something about this area in which I had no experience!" the raccoon growled as he slapped the back of his right hand into his left palm to accentuate his points.
"And that is what you would do, mage or mundane. That is your mind. Everyone reacts differently to life experience. We have no idea what she thought of the whole situation as it was happening, or even her degree of awareness of it." Misha said as they stepped out into a small courtyard, which caused Rick to blink in some surprise, frowning. It was the same courtyard they had discovered a few nights before, with a door that lead through the outer wall. The smell of lavender and jasmine was still heavy in the air though the vines themselves had long withered with the season.
"Exactly." He replied, looking about the night shrouded plaza curiously. Misha scowled as well, looking around, his muzzle wrinkling as he scented the air. "Like you, asking questions to which answers are irrelevant to you." Rick said slowly, "So why don't we get her out of the dungeon and ask her ourselves? What is Kyia about bringing us here."
"Where is here?" Misha asked, reflexively reaching for the hilt of Whisper at his shoulder.
"Her access point to and from the keep, through the gardener's shed over there. There's a door which leads through the bailey wall for the purpose of refuse removal."
"And why the soap?" the fox asked as he picked up a discarded lump from the ground near one of the fountains. "She bathed whenever she came back?" he frowned and dropped the soap. The idea that she had the presence of mind to bathe and mask the scent of her fights smacked far too closely of conscious control of her plight.
"It would appear so. Kyia explained that it was shortly after her return that the sensation of the sword's presence disappeared from her detection." Rick said as he toed the soap, walking past the fountain to look into the shed. To his surprise the shelves along one side of the shed had fallen across the door, blocking it from being pushed open from the other side. "What we're trying to determine right now is what questions we need to ask and where she might try to lie to us. I am the most eager to hear how she will explain some of the facts of this incident."
Misha joined him at the door, "Me, asking irrelevant questions? You've already decided that she's guilty. Why bother asking her questions at all?" the fox asked in a soft rasp as they turned and crossed the small plaza again.
"Yes, you asking irrelevant questions. I know what I saw, someone consciously fighting against magical coercion, not control." Rick replied levelly, "Let's turn this around; what would you do if your life had been led without magic and you found yourself subject to outside control like she was?"
Misha shrugged as they entered the keep once more, the gloom of the passage somehow less dark than the plaza had been, the distantly spaced torches casting their glow across the walls. "I'd do like she did. Fight it to the best of my ability."
Rick offered him a sidelong glance, "Alone?"
"Who would I ask for help? You?" the fox countered, his furry brows raised as he returned the raccoon's regard.
"Potentially. You're a Long Scout, though; you know how the power structure here works. You know there is a mage that deals in artifacts and magics of the enemy."
"Wessex. And what you have in your hand that might be causing some problems?"
Misha scratched one of his ears, "It was foolish and dangerous of her to pick up the blade without first understanding it." He shrugged, "But then, everyone makes mistakes."
"Yes it was, and yes they do." Rick agreed, "But this was a mistake that could have cost a great many lives beyond her own. One simply cannot be allowed to walk away unaccountable for that."
Reaching an intersection, Misha stopped and looked at the raccoon, "That brings us back to my first question. What do we do with her?"
"Let the Duke figure that out. Our duty is to determine the degree of her guilt in the matter."
"Or innocence." Misha cautioned.
Rick shook his head vehemently, "No, not innocence. Degree of guilt, but no matter what is determined, she bears some guilt for the whole matter." He stopped as he came upon a familiar door finally. A rattle echoed down the corridor as the latch lifted, the wards placed upon the heavy wooden door sensing his presences and opening the door.
Misha frowned and sighed, but could only nod slightly to that. While it was within his heart to believe Llyn totally innocent of the carnage that had been sown by her agency, he could not fully banish the idea that she did have some responsibility of it. He gave the raccoon a parting wave before the door closed, and continued on to his own rooms, which turned out to be just around the corner, much to his relief.